Behind the Scenes at Bristol Riverside Theatre: Technical Prep

Not all rehearsals focus on dialog and acting.  For a few days, technical work takes center stage. In the week leading up to opening night, lighting and sound design is worked out in collaboration between lighting designer Ryan O’Gara, sound designer Amy Altadonna and stage manager Angi Adams. One of the rows in the theater is covered with equipment as the technical details are tested, refined and stored for playback during the show.  Director Susan Atkinson moves back in the row immediately behind the stations giving input and guidance.

From the first rehearsal, Angi has been noting the meticulous details of stage movement down to which actor moves which bench and in which scene change. By now, movement is refined to the point when light and sound can be applied in support of the story.  While the script dictates the dialog, the production company fills in the technical details.  Mist, orange light and shadows give the impression of a hot and humid evening supporting the townspeople commenting on the blistering heat.

Light and sound come together in Henry Drummond’s (Keith Baker) entrance. The lawyer for the defense in Inherit the Wind is an unwelcome stranger in the God-fearing town of Hillsboro.  Melinda (Gaby Bradbury), a young girl, sees his larger-than-life shadow cast on a wall and screams “It’s the devil!” and runs off.  Ryan uses a headset and communicates with the lighting engineer to adjust the size and intensity of the shadow.  He speaks in numbers and percentages and the shadow elongates.  Amy plays a blues guitar riff underscored with a low bass.  

The music is so unlike the gospel hymns earlier in the play that it emphasizes his strangeness and the tones say “trouble’s coming.” In production, it’ll happen too quickly for most audience members to give it much thought, but it will give an impression that problems lie just ahead.

Not all of it is strictly for the audience, though.  In Act I, the townspeople enter from either side of the stage singing Old Time Religion.  They’re not within hearing distance of each other when they start, yet they need to be in sync. A recording of the cast singing it in a prior rehearsal closes that gap. 

Angi reminds the cast to pay attention to the queue lights back stage.  When the light is on, get ready to go on stage and when the light goes off, start signing.  Today, though, rehearsal slows down to get the technical work ironed out. The actors often wait as transitions are tweaked and adjusted.  Not everyone is required for every scene.  I’m reminded of the down time on an active film set.  The director is always on deck, but there are expected pauses for the rest of the cast and crew.

It’s also reminiscent of the film post production process as the sound track and digital effects are applied, but that’s where the analogy ends.  A film editor commits the edits once and they’re burned to DVD, the job is done.  Not so for the production crew who is on hand for every performance.

Light and sound is queued up for playback and it’s up to them to hit their queues and work in sync. They may not be on stage for curtain call, but they are just as responsible for delivering the performance as the actors. Next time you find yourself applauding for the cast, make sure there are a few claps for the crew, too.

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